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My friend Bob hired a 25-year old to help him install some paneling in his basement.  When Bob noticed how much the worker’s effectiveness was undermined by his continued attention to every smart phone ding that signaled a text or Tweet, Bob asked him three times to set the screen aside while he was working. The worker couldn't do it.  Bob reports, “It was like a person coming off drugs. . . .  He had the shakes until he checked.  I won’t hire him again.”

Each of us lives in a world made up of not only our physical surroundings, family context, cultural expectations, group memberships, and financial situation, but also our digital devices.  Increasing evidence shows that our worlds are shaped more by screens than we might realize.

            For example, social media involvement seems to affect ethical choices.  A recent survey comparing active social networkers with other U.S. workers (  found that the social networkers are much more likely to believe that questionable behaviors are acceptable.  Forty two percent said it was fine to blog or tweet negatively about your company or colleagues, versus 6% of non-social networkers.  Fifty percent approved of keeping a copy of confidential work documents in case you need them in your next job, and the same percentage thought it was fine to upload vacation pictures to the company network or server so you can share them with co-workers.  The percentages of non-social networkers approving these behaviors were 15% and 17%.  None of the social networkers’ choices is grossly illegal, and they all violate ethical standards.

           What’s happening here?  It’s reasonable to expect that exchanging 150 to 300 digital messages every day could somehow affect the shape of people’s worlds.  But why in these ways?  What is it about heavy social media use that seems to affect peoples’ sense of what’s right and wrong?

          Depersonalization is at least part, if not all of it.  At the extreme, governments at war, drill sergeants, and law enforcement trainers have for centuries used depersonalization to justify violence and even killing.   They teach recruits to think of their human targets as “Japs,” “Huns,” “colonists,” “terrorists,” or even “bad guys.”   Depersonalization helps make violence acceptable.  At the opposite end of the scale, efforts to de-escalate conflict and reconcile enemies always focus on personalizing those on all sides.

         Digital options that guarantee control, limit content, and emphasize speed unavoidably depersonalize  the people using them.  Large numbers of people report that they prefer the virtual to the real because, if you don’t like what’s happening on line, you can just sign off or change it.  And as Marshall McLuhan demonstrated in the 1960’s, the very fact that human contact is mediated electronically reduces the complexity of the thinking, feeling, choice-making, reflective humans involved.

        Many people are recognizing the very human downside of virtual worlds and heavy social media use.  Over 80% of a University audience I talked with recently reported that they were decreasing or eliminating their Facebook involvement.  But baby-with-the-bathwater solutions don’t make sense, either.  Social networking has tremendous value.

       The key is to balance your impersonal contacts with personal ones.  I’ve suggested how to do this in previous posts, and in a few weeks, a fully-developed guide will be available in the form of a book called U&ME:  Communicating in Moments that Matter.   Watch for it here, at, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.

       Street musician Johnny Hahn provides more proof of how the culture’s out of balance.  For 27 years, he’s been playing his 64-key piano at the Pike Street Market in Seattle five days a week, sometimes six.  The Seattle Times reports that, in recent years, he has noticed a big change in the audience that listens to him. 

      “Since the explosion of the digital paradigm and reality TV, there has been a dramatic shift” in how he’s treated.  “Because everybody has a camera phone now, the most minute thing is something to take a picture of and post on their Facebook page,” he says.  Hahn is convinced that taking photos has diminished the relationship between him and his audience, dehumanizing the connection.  Now, he says, “I’m just another object to be photographed.” (Bill Reader, “Roadside Attractions,” Pacific Northwest, The Seattle Times, July 28, 2013, p.14.)

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